For TFA Alumna and Assistant Principal Sophia (Sunny) Sinco, the Social-Emotional Wellbeing of Students Underpins Everything Else
Sophia (Sunny) Sinco did her Teach for America service in the Renton school district, just 20 minutes away from where she grew up, and the clear contrasts between her school experiences and those of her students had a profound impact on her.
It was 2012 and she was teaching seventh grade while her brother was a seventh-grader at a nearby, more affluent school. The contrasts were stark and immediate.
“The work felt very personal very early on for me, because I was able to see the different kinds of opportunities students have,” Sunny said. “And that means different kinds of messages that they're receiving. I saw that really implicating me when I would look at the kinds of assignments my brother was experiencing, and the kinds of assignments I was putting forth.”
That early teaching experience has informed her approach to education ever since. "I found myself examining very critically what kind of opportunities I was creating, what kind of messages I was sending about the extent to which I believed in my kids and supported their potential," Sunny said.
“I found myself examining very critically what kind of opportunities I was creating, what kind of messages I was sending about the extent to which I believed in my kids and supported their potential.”
Today, she serves as assistant principal at Cascade Middle School in the Highline School District. She taught at Cascade for a spell after her TFA service, then left to become principal at another school. But Cascade, a school with a highly diverse population and Spanish and Vietnamese dual language immersion programs, drew her back after just a short time.
“It was just very special the way that students and families showed up and were able to bring the complexities of themselves into the school space and how the school itself interacted with the network of people that surround and support our kids every day,” Sunny said. Having left, she realized how much she loved and missed Cascade.
In the wake of Covid-19 learning disruptions, the staff at Cascade has been focusing on how “social-emotional health underpins everything else,” Sunny said. The school has partnered with the community to examine its social-emotional programs, to determine who's “being well served by these routines and in what ways, and who's not?”
A key component of this reexamination has been truly listening to students. What educators have learned is that the adjustments to middle school from elementary school can be profound, and especially for students who suddenly assume more family responsibilities as they grow older.
“There's something fundamentally missing in the way that our culture cultivates care, and a sense of being able to struggle in productive ways and show up authentically, especially when things are hard.”
Sunny spoke of one boy who told her that not only was the school work more demanding, but that he now had to help get younger siblings to and from school, and to care for them after school while his parents worked. At the same time, the intensifying social pressures middle school brings means coping with those issues internally as well as supporting friends who might be experiencing turbulent times.
All of these factors can have a major impact on academic success. “This particular student made a really good point about the complexity of things we ask middle-schoolers to be able to do, well above and beyond the fact that the way you learn just fundamentally changes,” she said.
The revelation made the Cascade staff realize that even the world’s best and priciest curriculum can’t address these types of challenges. “There's something fundamentally missing in the way that our culture cultivates care, and a sense of being able to struggle in productive ways and show up authentically, especially when things are hard,” she said.
They began asking themselves “how do we have really rigorous, grade-appropriate opportunities put in front of our students, and be able to respond meaningfully to their needs without slowing down?”
A key is being intentional about messages teachers deliver to students, Sunny said, focused on the opportunities they deserve, and that they “have what it takes” to seize those opportunities.
The staff has also focused on coping with student behavioral issues without meting out harsh discipline. In the first six months of this school year, teachers put out 850 calls for support from administrative staff. Only 100 of those resulted in what Sunny called ‘exclusionary consequences,’ meaning in- or out-of-school suspensions or being removed from a classroom.
That’s a far lower number than in previous years. What shift in approach has led to this improvement?
“The things that trigger behavior are actually mitigated by the community and the connections that they feel in class,” Sunny said. “And the adults that they feel connected to as well as students that they feel connected to, and in the ways that they feel connected to them.
“We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about how we have to go from improving our responses to improving our systems as a whole.”